One of the biggest deals of the 2021 NBA trade deadline saw Aaron Gordon get moved to Denver by Orlando, as the Magic granted his trade request in exchange for Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a first round pick. Gordon has been steadily assimilating with the Nuggets, averaging a modest 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 11 games in Denver so far, but his efficiency has taken a leap, at least in two-point range, and if he regains his three-point stroke (37.5 percent in Orlando and just 28.6 percent in Denver) his game will really take off.
While Gordon isn’t averaging as much as he did with the Magic, he’s happy taking a smaller role on a winner and with Jamal Murray’s torn ACL, his presence is suddenly much more important. Gordon will be asked to take on a role a bit more like he played in Denver, with more of the scoring load shifting to him, but from a creativity perspective, everything in Denver still runs through the MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic. Playing with Jokic is the chief reason Gordon’s efficiency from two-point range has skyrocketed, as he is now among the many beneficiaries of the star big man’s unique vision and passing ability.
For Gordon, it’s a very new world to exist in, and he recently spoke with The Athletic’s Sam Amick about Jokic’s “genius” as well as the adjustment it takes to suddenly be always on alert because a pass will come your way if you’re open (or are about to become open) whether you’re ready or not.
“He’s a genius, man,” Gordon said of Jokic, who is on track to become just the second player in league history to average at least 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists per game (Oscar Robertson is the other, and he did it just once). “He’s a basketball genius. That’s really what it comes down to. He’s playing it like it’s chess, seeing it three steps ahead.
“I’m starting to learn that you’ve always got to keep your eye on him when he has the ball because he’ll find you. He’ll find you. Even if you don’t think you’re open, you’re open. He’ll pass you open, which is dope. It’s just amazing to play with somebody like that who can actually pass you open and sees the game (like that), and who likes to pass and enjoys passing.”
That explanation of how Jokic throws guys open highlights the difference between a good passer and an elite passer like Jokic (or LeBron or Chris Paul, etc.). The way he anticipates openings, throwing passes to spaces rather than people, is something few can do and it opens up so much for an offense because you aren’t trying to hit open windows before they close (which happens quickly in the NBA) but instead you’re hitting the windows as they open and before the defense is even reacting, which creates better looks. At the same time, it requires everyone to stay vigilant. When Jokic is on the court, there is no cutting for the sake of cutting, it always has to be done with purpose because if you’re about to come open, the ball is going to be there.
That might be the part that makes the Denver offense so great, because all five guys on the court stay engaged in a way that doesn’t always happen. You have to stay shot ready, which makes you more likely to knock it down when the ball comes to you because you aren’t ever surprised when it makes it there.